Madison Square Garden's facial recognition and dangerous surveillance trends

The Madison Square Garden story of a venue using face algorithms to deny entry to certain people is a watershed moment that should concern everyone.

James L. Dolan is known for his autocratic rule over Madison Square Garden, the famous sports arena that houses the New York Knicks basketball team. Knicks fans have many war stories around the sudden firings of coaches. But by mixing Dolan's unpredictable behavior with sophisticated and powerful technology, he has unleashed a dystopian cocktail of blacklisting that has created a disturbing trend for facial recognition.

The story began during the Thanksgiving weekend when Kelly Conlon, a personal injury lawyer from Bergen County, New Jersey, took her daughter's Girl Scout troop to see the "Christmas Spectacular" at Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan. Unfortunately, what was supposed to be a festive experience dramatically turned into an Orwellian incident.

Before Kelly could even catch a glimpse of the Rockettes, security guards pulled her aside. The guards identified Kelly using a facial recognition system. They informed her that she was on an "attorney exclusion list" created by MSG Entertainment, a company controlled by the Dolan family. The company owns several famous performance spaces in New York, including Radio City Music Hall, and has banned all lawyers and their firms due to "litigation creating an adversarial environment."

Under the leadership of autocratic CEO James L. Dolan of MSG Entertainment, a ban has been implemented using cutting-edge facial recognition technology capable of identifying hundreds of lawyers through profile photos on their law firms' websites. The software uses an algorithm to analyze images quickly and suggest matches. However, Kelly Conlon's experience raises questions about the use of facial recognition technology and how it impacts individual privacy and freedom.

Even more concerning is that this was not an isolated incident with multiple lawyers sharing similar stories. A Brooklyn lawyer, Benjamin Pinczewski, told the New York Post that he was prevented from entering a Rangers game at Madison Square after being flagged by a facial recognition system. The 61-year-old, who practices personal injury and civil rights law, had just cleared a metal detector and was on his way to sit with friends in prime lower-level seats when he was stopped by two officials and removed from the arena.

When you become a person of interest

However, there is much more to this story than a legal case. The same facial recognition has also been used to target critics, including director Spike Lee and Michael Rapaport. These recent events highlight how emerging technologies are not always used for convenience or keeping people safe. Once again, we have an example of someone in a position of power using technology to discriminate against certain groups or individuals.

Elsewhere, a New York City police officer was filmed recording the faces of hundreds of people leaving a Drake concert at the Apollo Theater in Harlem last month. The incident was criticized by privacy advocates, who point to the growing scale of everyday surveillance in New York and how technology disproportionately affects neighborhoods of color.

In a digital world where many live in dopamine feedback loops and echo chambers of their worldview, could business owners take it to another level? To remove all critics or anyone it sees as a thorn in its side, it would simply need a database of individuals it wants to track, and the algorithms will comb through footage or still images to find them.

It's never been easier for the rich and powerful to create the ultimate shit list of people that it wants to remove from its venues. But, in Kelly Conlon's case, the technology was even more advanced. The venue's surveillance cameras were continuously monitored in real-time by software that could instantly recognize the faces it was programmed to search for.

Could this use of technology also be used similarly by authoritarian governments wanting to crush dissent from their people? Without considering the implications of how technology could be used, we are opening a pandora's box of new ways for the rich and powerful to take down their critics, competitors, journalists, etc.

There are already examples of facial recognition cameras appearing in schools that also continue the trend of eroding privacy and normalizing surveillance. However, we need to recognize that the choices we make regarding technology and its governing policies will impact the future course of life as we know it.

If you have done nothing wrong, why is your privacy being violated?

The notion of a government monitoring everything we do for our own safety should set off a few alarm bells. Installing cameras in our homes or microphones in public places for criminal surveillance should be unacceptable and intrusive. Yet, ironically, there is an argument that many have already volunteered for wiretapping of their lives through always-listening smart speakers and digital assistants. But are our smart homes merely trojan horses monitoring our every move while disguised as convenience?

The statement "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" creates a false sense of security and reinforces trust in state powers. However, it also ignores the fact that fear can stem from various sources and encourages people to ignore the mistreatment of others through everyday surveillance. Additionally, it suggests the ominous threat that those who have not behaved appropriately have something to fear, instilling a sense of fear and complacency.

Although on the surface, Madison Square Garden's facial recognition is sold to users as a way of quickly authenticating ticket holders' identity and getting them into the arena with minimum friction. But it's important to remember that new use cases will soon follow once the genie is out of the bottle, and the bigger question what kind of future are we building here?

Amazon has previously admitted to handing police footage recorded on its Ring doorbell cameras without their owners' permission. So if authorities can use a doorbell to their advantage, it's safe to assume that everything is up for grabs. Of course, most people will agree to any system that keeps the bad guys away and keep them safe. But it also puts us on a slippery slope where powerful entities can leverage technology to control, monitor movement, and exclude people.

The last few months' events should serve as a cautionary tale about the potential dangers of facial recognition technology. It's crucial to weigh the benefits against the risks and to establish clear guidelines for its use to protect the rights of individuals. If a lawyer and her 9-year-old daughter can be ejected from a venue because of tech, maybe it's time to retire the phrase if you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear.

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